As I’m wrapping up a conversation with longtime Lagunitas head brewer Jeremy Marshall, he tells me that the 2023 release of Waldos’ Special Ale—a behemoth triple IPA that serves as a yearly monument to Northern California weed culture, aptly released every April 20—was just coming off the bottling line that morning. It’s been about a decade since my first taste, but I can still remember how it felt: dense, resinous, overcharged. It was bittersweet—though, as a conjunctive, “bittersweet” seems to temper its constituent descriptors. Waldos’ Special Ale was both extremely bitter and extremely sweet: an effervescent all-syrup Super Squishee of extra-ripe Citra and Mosaic hops, designed to mirror the stickiness and potent aromatics of a fresh cannabis bud. Lord, it was dank.
One of the defining terms of 21st-century beer culture, “dank” evidently stems from a separate but adjacent subculture. It is a metonym, a word that stands in for a concept it’s closely associated with, an evocation of a shared understanding, like how the word “dish” can be used to refer to a preparation of food and not just the vessel that holds it. And for more than half a century, “dank” has been American slang to describe fresh and pungent cannabis. But the ties that bind weed (Cannabis sativa) and hops (Humulus lupulus) run deep; their common ancestry can be traced back more than 25 million years. The structure of a hop cone and a cannabis flower are remarkably similar, down to the aromatic sulfur compounds (known as thiols) they produce, which are key to understanding what the beer writer Jeff Alworth calls “that ineffable quality that we call dankness.”
While it can feel as though dankness has long had a place in the beer world, its regular usage in beer wouldn’t arise until the mid- to late aughts. Before then, the term was more likely to have described the smell of a bar after many nights of Budweiser splashing onto the floor. In the glossary of James D. Robertson’s 1984 book The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer, “dank” was defined as “slightly moldy, as the smell in a damp basement.” Fast-forward to 2012, when a Homebrew Talk message board poster would describe the dank Simcoe hop as smelling “like 10 cats pissing on a pine tree. It’s awesome.”
By that time, the conditions that would allow for the ubiquity of “dank” were brewing. The West Coast IPA, with its ramped-up hop profile and signature intense bitterness, had found its exemplar in Russian River’s Pliny the Elder in the late ’90s, which set the course for craft brewers into the new millennium. Extracting the most flavor out of fresh hops became the name of the game. “These hops were known to the big brewers as just alpha hops, so they would be extracted for commodity bittering,” Marshall says. “It was the craft brewers that really said, Well, what would happen if we dry-hopped with these?”
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Dry-hopping—or adding hops late in the brewing process primarily to build a beer’s bouquet and flavor as opposed to early on to add bitterness—was the skeleton key that unlocked the IPA’s potential in ways early craft brewers could not have foreseen. A newfound appreciation of the nuanced flavors of hops would beget a new generation of hop breeds in the mid-aughts, headlined by Citra, arguably the Prometheus of the modern IPA. The hops were fruitier, earthier, more potent and aromatic in general. If the uncanny similarities between good hops and good weed were more of an inside joke before, the arrival of Citra (and later Mosaic, among other next-gen hops) rolled loud.
The following decade was an arms race—toward a bigger, bolder, hoppier future—whose wreckage we’re still processing. “It’s interesting, you can kind of chart where IPAs are in relation to dankness,” Alworth says. “When dank first came out, people really loved it... They wanted their IPAs super dank. And then when you had more tropicality come in with hazy IPAs, dankness was kind of spurned. You didn’t want any dank in your mango IPA.”
“Dank,” even at its peak as a complimentary term, never lost its connection to revulsion, that sense of unease and intrigue that simultaneously pushes you away and pulls you closer. The dankest IPAs conjure the aroma of cannabis, but also find a secondary connection to weed in their lingering bitterness, a jolt to the system that might as well be psychoactive. The hazy IPA—which leans heavily on dry-hopping to draw out the fruitiness of the new-generation hops, but balances those flavors through a soft texture—could be seen as a balm for the burnout of a palate-wrecked hops enthusiast. For your years of service walking through the pine forests covered in sap, here is your reward: a brew that looks and tastes like a mimosa.
Amid the rise and fall of “dank,” the craft beer boom reached its peak and plateaued; trends (hazy IPAs!) fractured into microtrends (milkshake IPAs!) that fizzled out under even the slightest scrutiny; language went Dada (hazeboi, crispy boi, flying through the sky so fancy free). “Dank” reached escape velocity through meme culture, entering the mainstream with a kind of irony-laden coolness that emanates from something that has long since been uncool, like using the Meryl Streep meme in 2023. Which, fittingly, brings us back to where we began.
“It does seem like the popularity of West Coast IPAs are coming back,” Alworth says. “You hear people favorably coming back to the word ‘dank’ as a positive attribute. They might also use the word ‘old school’ to go along with that, but again, favorably rather than derisively.”